William Glasser was an American psychiatrist and author who is best known for founding reality therapy and choice theory. He questioned the existence of mental illness and criticized the use of powerful, mind-altering drugs in the treatment of mental health issues. Glasser believed that all behaviors are a matter of choice. His work left a profound positive impression on the mental health, business, and education industries.
William Glasser's Early Life
William Glasser was born on May 11, 1925 in Cleveland, Ohio. His parents were Ben and Betty Glasser. Glasser was the youngest of his parents' three children. He had an older brother named Henry and an older sister named Janet.
Glasser’s father, Ben, was a small business owner who repaired watches and clocks. Ben was from a Russian Jewish family that came to the United States to escape religious persecution. Glasser’s mother, Betty, emphasized the importance of education. She encouraged all of her children to read from an early age.
Glasser described his mother as a very controlling person. He once stated, “If the Olympics had an event in controlling, my mother could have gone for the gold medal.” Glasser’s father was an easy going person who practiced self-control and did not try to force his views on other people. Glasser thought his parents’ relationship was “terrible” because his mother would fight and taunt his father until he could not stand it any longer.
Despite the differences in their personalities, both of Glassers’ parents treated him with love. His childhood has been described as relatively “uneventful and happy.” Glasser also claimed that he was intensely shy as a boy. He wanted to get a good education so that he could get a good job and assist his family financially.
Glasser enrolled at Case Western Reserve University after leaving high school. His father encouraged him to study chemical engineering because it was viewed as a “practical” profession. Glasser took a few psychology classes in college and earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 1945. He was drafted into the army in 1946 after a short, unhappy period working in the engineering field.
After completing his military service, Glasser was determined to continue studying psychology at Case Western Reserve University. One reason for his interest in psychology was that he wanted to learn how to deal with his own shyness. Glasser earned his masters degree in clinical psychology in 1949. Shortly after, the dean urged him to apply to the university’s medical school and become a psychiatrist.
Glasser received his medical degree from Case Western Reserve University in 1953. In 1957, he completed his psychiatric residency at the Veterans Administration hospital in West Los Angeles under the supervision of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). During his residency, Glasser angered many of his supervisors with his anti-Freudian beliefs. He stated, “What they taught, in effect, was that you aren’t responsible for your miserable problems because you are the victim of factors and circumstances beyond your control... I objected to that.… My thrust was that patients have to be worked with as if they have choices to make. My question is always, ‘What are you going to do about your life, beginning today?’”
Glasser claimed that he “was thrown off the staff” at the end of his residency. However, he held on to his position as staff psychiatrist at a reform school called the Ventura School for Girls. During his time there, Glasser developed healthy relationships with the students and encouraged them to take responsibility for their own behavior. He also began teaching the concepts that would eventually develop into reality therapy. Glasser opened his private practice in Los Angeles in 1957. He became board certified in psychiatry in 1961.
Glasser’s second book, Reality Therapy (1965), garnered national attention and became a best-seller. In 1967 he founded the Institute for Reality Therapy. Two years later, Glasser published his first book on education which was titled Schools Without Failure (1969). He made a big impression on the field of education and his concepts continue to impact schools and teachers around the world.
Choice theory is a psychological school of thought that was developed by William Glasser. It was originally called “control theory” before being renamed as “choice theory” in 1996. Choice theory has five major components:
- The Basic Needs
- The Quality World
- The Perceived World
- The Comparing Place
- Total Behavior
To get a clear understanding of the theory, it may be best to consider the five major components one at a time.
The Basic Needs
Choice theory assumes that people are born with five basic needs:
- Survival - This is a physiological need. People have an inner drive to seek shelter, food, safety, and sex to ensure the survival of their species.
- Love and belonging - This is a psychological need. People want to give and receive love, build relationships, develop social connections, and feel as if they are part of a group.
- Power - This is a psychological need. People have a desire to feel competent. They want to reach their goals and be recognized for their achievements.
- Freedom - This is a psychological need. People want to make their own choices and take control of the direction of their lives.
- Fun - This is a psychological need. People have a desire to play and find enjoyment in the world around them.
According to choice theory, humans are genetically hardwired to behave in a way that will help them to meet their five basic needs. These needs are universal, innate, and overlapping. They are also satisfied from moment to moment. However, one person’s needs may conflict with someone else’s needs in a particular moment.
Although the five basic needs may seem similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, only two of the basic needs (survival and love and belonging) are identical. It is also vital to note that Maslow’s theory suggests that some needs are more important than others. For example, Maslow viewed the need to survive as more important than the need to love. Maslow also claimed that people generally progress to higher level psychological needs after their survival and safety needs are met.
However, choice theory does not list the five basic needs in any particular order. Rather than a hierarchy, Glasser emphasizes the importance of maintaining balance between the five basic needs. While it may be tempting to view the need to survive as the most important, Glasser noted that people may commit suicide if their other needs, such as love, are unmet. Some individuals may also risk their lives in order to attain personal freedom or power.
The Quality World
Choice theory claims that a person’s quality world is a place in his mind where he stores mental pictures of the things he wants. It is a personal picture album of the specific people, ideas, activities, situations, and things that fulfill one or more of his basic needs and make him feel very good. A person’s quality world is a mental representation of the ideal world in which he would want to live. These mental files show the specific things he is striving for from one moment to the next.
While the five basic needs are universal, the pictures in a person’s quality world are specific and unique. Consider two individuals who are seeking to address their basic need for love and belonging. One individual may view his ideal partner as someone who is calm and quiet, while the other individual may view his ideal partner as someone who is assertive and outgoing. Although both mental representations seek to address the same basic need, they are unique to each individual.
The pictures in a person’s quality world are changeable. While a young person may view watching cartoons as an ideal form of fun, he may prefer to go out with friends when he becomes a teenager. The pictures in a person’s quality world may vary in their intensity or level of attainability. They may also conflict with each other.
Consider a young woman who has these two mental images in her quality world:
- I want my parents to think of me as a good daughter
- I want to be independent and move out on my own
At first, there may be no conflict between these two images. However, the young woman’s circumstances may change. For example, if her parents become very sick, she may be torn between staying home to care for her parents and moving out to gain her independence. If she is unable to let go of either image and strongly desires both, she may experience much mental distress.
The Perceived World
Choice theory states that information from the real world enters a person’s sensory system (which includes the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin) and then passes through the perceptual system. According to Glasser, a person’s perceptual system is composed of two special filters called the total knowledge filter and the valuing filter. The total knowledge filter represents everything that a person knows and has experienced up to that point in time. The valuing filter is involved with assigning value or importance to the information it receives.
Information from the sensory system first arrives at the total knowledge filter. When it passes through the total knowledge filter one of three things happens:
- The individual decides that the information is not meaningful to him and perception stops
- The information is not recognized right away, but as it may be meaningful, the individual is motivated to learn more
- The information is recognized as meaningful so it is sent to the valuing filter
When information passes through the valuing filter, the individual assigns it one of three values:
- If the information is pleasurable and satisfies a need it is given a positive value
- If the information is painful and hinders the individual’s ability to satisfy a need, it is given a negative value
- If the information neither helps nor hinders the individual’s ability to meet a need, it is assigned no value and remains neutral
A person’s perceived world is the reality he or she lives in. However, as people have unique experiences and values, and they receive different information from their environment, it is possible for one person to have a very different perception of the world than someone else. A person’s perceived world is:
- Subjective (influenced by his or her age, experience, culture, gender, etc)
- Changeable (as new information becomes available)
- Often inaccurate but feels completely accurate
Consider driver Andy who cuts off driver Bob while he is on his way to work. Driver Bob may perceive driver Andy as a very inconsiderate person and he may become irritated at the fact that he was cut off. However, onlookers who know driver Andy very well may view him as a kind and compassionate person who simply made an error in judgment on the road. In the heat of the moment, driver Bob may feel very confident about his negative perception of driver Andy, but his perception is very different from that of the onlookers.
The Comparing Place
The comparing place describes a mental process where an individual constantly compares what he wants (quality world pictures) with what he actually has (perceived world). When his quality world pictures and his perceived world match very well, he feels good. When there is a mismatch, he feels a degree of frustration depending on how important the quality world picture is to him. Once the individual becomes frustrated, he will act in a way to resolve his frustration.
Please read the two sentences below:
- Peter gets good grades because he always studies before a test.
- John gets bad grades because he never before a test.
Did you have to read sentence number two more than once? If you did, it was likely because you were slightly frustrated that the word “studies” was missing. You may have wanted both sentences to be grammatically correct (quality world picture) but what you read did not match your expectations (perceived world). This mismatch between your quality world picture and your perceived world sparked feelings of frustration and motivated you to read the sentence again. Once you realized that a word is missing, your brain likely filled in the missing word and your frustration decreased.
Choice theory likens your comparing place to a set of scales. When the scales are balanced because you have what you want, you will continue your current behavior to keep what you have. When the scales are unbalanced because you do not have what you want, you will change your behavior to get what you want.
Choice theory assumes that “all behavior is purposeful.” This means everything you do is your best attempt at that time to meet your needs, based on your available resources. In other words, all your behaviors are attempts to transform your perceived world so that they match the pictures in your quality world.
There are two types of behaviors:
- Organized behaviors - these are behaviors that you are familiar with and usually choose to fulfill a need. For example, you may decide to go to a party when you have a need for fun because you have had fun at parties in the past.
- Reorganized behaviors - when organized behaviors are not available or suitable to fulfill a need, you may use your creativity to figure out new behaviors that can be used instead.
All behaviors are called total behaviors because they have four components: (1) acting, (2) thinking, (3) feeling, and (4) physiology.
Think about a person who is hiking up a mountain. Hiking requires physical action (that is, repeatedly putting one foot in front of the other) so the acting component is present. As these actions are performed, the hiker’s physiology starts to respond. He begins to sweat, his muscles become more tense, and he begins to take deeper breaths. He also starts thinking about how beautiful the natural world is. These thoughts contribute to him feeling more refreshed, inspired, and positive. As shown above, hiking involves all four behavioral components. The behavior is called “hiking” only because the acting component is most recognizable.
Choice theory claims that all four components are always present for every behavior. When one component is adjusted, the other three change in a corresponding way. However, people are better able to control the acting and thinking components than the physiology and feeling components. So if a person feels terrible after a bad day at work, he may choose to go jogging in the evening (acting component) and get his blood pumping (physiological component) so that he can reflect on new ideas (thinking component) and feel better about his circumstances (feeling component).
There are ten axioms of choice therapy. All ten are listed below:
- The only person whose behavior we can control is our own.
- All we can give another person is information.
- All long-lasting psychological problems are relationship problems.
- The problem relationship is always part of our present life.
- What happened in the past has everything to do with what we are today, but we can only satisfy our basic needs right now and plan to continue satisfying them in the future.
- We can only satisfy our needs by satisfying the pictures in our Quality World.
- All we do is behave.
- All behavior is Total Behavior and is made up of four components: acting, thinking, feeling and physiology
- All Total Behavior is chosen, but we only have direct control over the acting and thinking components. We can only control our feeling and physiology indirectly through how we choose to act and think.
- All Total Behavior is designated by verbs and named by the part that is the most recognizable.
Reality Therapy: The Primary Application of Choice Theory
William Glasser developed reality therapy during his time at the Veterans Administration hospital in Los Angeles and the Ventura School for Girls in Ventura, California. Reality therapy is a form of counseling that rejects the concept of mental illness and suggests that people display unhealthy behaviors when their needs are not met in a responsible way. By the 1970s, the underlying principles of reality therapy were extended into what Glasser called “control theory.” As the concepts continued to evolve, control theory was renamed as “choice theory.”
The modern day practice of reality therapy is firmly based on the tenets of choice theory. The approach helps clients to gain effective control of their lives. Reality therapy assumes that all behaviors are choices. Good choices result in happiness while bad choices result in negative outcomes such as psychological symptoms and distress.
Another key assumption of reality therapy is that negative or non-existent connections with people are the source of almost all human problems. Consequently, this form of counseling helps clients to reconnect with the people they need. If clients are currently disconnected from other people, a reality therapist can help them to make new connections. The belief is that better relationships will result in fewer problems and a more satisfying life.
Reality therapy has five core concepts:
- Behavior - Clients are helped to identify disconnecting habits and change them into connecting habits. As all behaviors are choices, reality therapy helps people to feel more in control of their lives.
- Control - Choice theory suggests that a person is only controlled by himself. The idea that external forces can control an individual hinders positive change. Reality therapy helps clients to become more aware of their controllable choices.
- Responsibility - Reality therapy helps people to become more accountable for their behaviors.
- Action - Reality therapy empowers people to take action and do the positive things that are under their control.
- Present moment - Reality therapy claims that current behavior is influenced by current unmet needs rather than past experiences.
Although reality therapy is the major application of choice theory, the principles of choice theory have been implemented in a number of other areas such as:
- Marriage counseling
Criticisms of Glasser’s Theories
Glasser has received much criticism from the psychiatric community for his complete dismissal of the concept of mental illness and his claim that there is no concrete evidence that medication can help to cure mental health issues. He has also been criticized for suggesting that people with issues like depression or anxiety choose those behaviors.
Choice theory and reality therapy have been criticized for ignoring past experiences in order to focus strictly on the present. There is considerable evidence that past experiences, especially those involving trauma, can have a profound impact on how people behave later in life. As past experiences are not explored, some critics argue that reality therapists are limited in their understanding of the people they treat. This lack of knowledge may impact the effectiveness of counseling.
Choice theory and reality therapy have also been criticized for dismissing the power of the unconscious mind. Although reality therapy is widely used today, there is very little empirical evidence to support its effectiveness.
William Glasser's Books, Awards, and Accomplishments
Glasser was a prolific writer who authored twenty-seven books over the course of his career. Some of his most well-known works are listed below:
- Reality Therapy, 1965
- Schools Without Failure, 1969
- Control Theory, 1985
- The Quality School, 1990
- Staying Together, 1996
- Choice Theory, 1998
Glasser received honorary doctorates from the University of San Francisco and Pacific Union College in 1990 and 2006, respectively. A few of his other notable accomplishments include:
- California Association of School Counselors Award (2002)
- American Counseling Association Professional Development Award (2003)
- Legend in Counseling Award from the American Counseling Association (2004)
- Master Therapist designation from the American Psychological Association (2005)
- Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Center for the Study of Psychiatry and Psychology (2005)
- Distinguished Alumni Award from Case Western Reserve University (2010)
William Glasser married his first wife, Naomi, when he was 21 years old. Naomi has been described as a lovely, lively, and dynamic person who collaborated with her husband professionally. The couple had three children—Joseph, Alice, and Martin. Naomi died of cancer in 1992. Glasser’s son, Joseph, predeceased him in 1998.
Glasser married his second wife, Carleen, in 1995. They enjoyed a happy life living and working together. Glasser wrote eleven books after his second marriage. Carleen edited all of them.
On August 23, 2013, William Glasser passed away from respiratory failure due to pneumonia. He was 88 years old. Although he had been sick for a while, Glasser’s death shocked his family members and close friends. He is survived by his wife Carleen, daughter Alice, son Martin, sister Janet, brother Henry, nine grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
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